Jane is tied up with other things these days, and my emotional maturity being whatever it is, I get tied up in feeling deprived of attention, and so a certain tenseness pervaded our northbound journey. What to do about such things? Let time pass. Time, and that other thing that comes with travel, distance. North to Harbin Hot Springs. That is to say, north into the past, this destination being what it is. My own personal past pushing me down into the seat of Marlou’s extant PT Cruiser, the purchase of which seemed inexplicable at the time, my dying wife with barely two months of existence left, posing with a bottle of champagne and the open door of this, her last car. Me quietly shaking my head in disbelief. Why, oh why? And yet every time Jane and I set off with my late spouse’s vehicle in tow, there is little doubt. An easy car to drive. With unexpected room in the back for a folding electric wheelchair, a nuance that even the long-range-planning Marlou could not have envisioned. And if something in me has stiffened and withdrawn at the recent absence of the love provider, at least my transport is comfortable, not to mention possible.
I haven’t driven this route myself in three years. Doubtless I could do it again. But not without some strain on my shoulders. Actually, some rather dire stinging, something that comes of having scapula locked in place, one arm immobilized too long, the other overworked to compensate, while the disabled driver hunches, bracing against turns that hurl the torso this way and that. Which smacks of justification, that better serves as a reminder. Partly that whatever the cost in shoulders, I need to do this sort of drive now and then. Acknowledging that then is preferable. And now Jane is at the wheel. For which I can only thank the higher powers. The ones that are leading us higher into the dry forests of southern Lake County. At an elevation of botanical mixed statements. California oak and grassland. And not a few pines. An even smattering of Madrone. Cottonwoods mixing in with the rest. The result being a forest, but a dry one. Which, this being spring, means that the spaces between trees are green. Grass is briefly sprouting everywhere. In California, this phenomenon does not last long. But Jane says it best. Nice to have a forest open enough to see the ground.
It seems an affront that others have gotten here before us, occupying the scant spaces reserved for the lame, halt and blind. Although at Harbin Hot Springs, little is reserved except rooms. It takes some maneuvering for Jane to find a good place to abandon the car and assemble the folding wheelchair. And within seconds I have motored my way down the familiar path to the Harbin restaurant, maneuvered between the plastic rubbish bins and stoves and out into the evening’s self-service dining options. Usually good. The chicken curry quite pleasing. I rush and try not to rush at the same time. The same time running out, regardless. I am aware that it is getting dark, we have come here for the hot springs, and we had better get cracking.
Up the long Harbin slope, infinitely easier to negotiate in the current dry weather. Off with the clothes. And now I am facing the hottest of the resort’s springs. Clinging to the iron railing, staring down the steep concrete steps and at whatever lies beyond. The cardiac mortality inherent in the hyperstimulation of overwhelming heat. The neuromuscular folly of descending slippery steps with feet that cannot feel, on limbs that move and support insufficiently, not to mention the unknowns of crazed and abandoned neurons that can jerk my legs in any direction, at any provocation. And there is plenty of provocation, unseen and unknown, in this cauldron. Not to mention drowning, a possibility not remote from my mind. All this, and I am only poised at the top step.
Jane and I have done this before, but how? Funny how a memory clouded by age reawakens at a moment like this. The first step is a long one. I recall that. On the last visit, encountering this first-step problem saddened and demoralized me. For I can remember a time in my life when stepping into a swimming pool or a hot spring posed little challenge. No first-step problem then, just a general concern with not drowning. This does represent some loss. Probably orthopedic. Something that with age has become much more difficult. But little of this occurs to me at the moment. Which is good. I set out, am set back, both happening at once, but the combination being too much for the human mind to grasp. Setting out requires everything. Including Jane. For I remember and so does she. Within seconds, we have it. I lower my paralyzed right foot straight down to the step, while she pushes up under my descending shoulder, bracing the paralyzed foot as it alights. Repeating this with the next step, and next, each move getting easier as we move deeper into the buoyant mineral water. Until I am clasped in warm liquid embrace, floating and surrendering, while privately monitoring my respiration.
The hot water clamps and insinuates, squeezing and melting its way into a maze of aching musculature. In my back, my buttocks, legs. Neck and shoulders equally surrendering. In this hottest of hot pools, an elaborate warning sign posted at the entrance, a human can only take so much. Do I last five minutes? Impossible to say in such an environment, damaged neuromusculature notwithstanding. Standing being the next impossibility, for now I make my wavering way to the bottom step of the pool, then the next, Jane following and skillfully wedging my paralyzed foot into place on each tread. As the buoyancy diminishes, the effects of gravity and overheating increase. The physiological work grows heavy, the head light. The latter induces a mild panic, for what if I faint? Each step is an unknown. At the very top where the railing ends, so does hope. Which is replaced by Jane, who slithers under my arm gripping the steel. And offers her own. Relying on Jane’s arm both as railing and hub, I step, swivel and drop to the stone bench. Now a trick recalled from last time. Jane elevates my legs, blood returning to my head, panic abated.
In short we are back in touch. Me and Jane. Me and my body. We have gotten into hot water. And come out of it. We retire to our room and read and sleep in a building that is curiously anonymous for being about a century old. Our room, the springs, everything at Harbin nestles up the slope of a canyon’s side. All pleasantly apparent the next day with the sun rising on the Valley’s western slopes. The same dry forests, some trees coming into leaf, still more branches showing than greenery, all are revealed. They are at all stages of experience, these forests and slopes. Dying bark and rotting branch, budding leaves and sprouting stems. It’s going to outlast me, that is for sure, in spite of man’s best efforts to undo all of it. And you can hear everywhere the trickle of water. This has been a wet year. California’s long drought is officially ended. My mind is already bracing for the next dry year, but that is me.
Who are these people breakfasting in the dining room? Did I see them and their pubic hair last night in the baths? There are remarkable in their variety of attire. Some wear what is probably fashionable and sportif, others don the capacious shifts of the 1960s. Not to mention the occasional tie-dyed T-shirt. The man sitting next to us, long-haired and muscular
, ostentatiously making out with his girlfriend at this early hour, is wearing a sort of skirt. Actually, it could be classed as a tunic or Greek chiton, quite sensible for this in-and-out-of-the-baths environment. No one notices, no one cares, and this is Harbin. Breakfast is also Harbin. One of my faves. The Chinese breakfast, so-called. Masses of greens, soy sauce ginger, and so on, eggs and brown rice. Jane and I cannot finish a single serving. Who are they feeding? Us. Thoroughly and on every level. For what awaits but more of the same, in succession? Up the Harbin slope, down the steps into the cauldron, out and lightheaded, resting and down again. Will this kill me or cure me? All that is certain is that while the live sperm count is down, the spirits are up. My body has so long adjusted to its aches, that when relieved, the remaining ones spring to odd prominence. Pain melting, spilkes obliterating, the day advances.
And as it does, I read more, get more into my novel about a slave rebellion in Jamaica. Periodically I look up and imagine myself there. Human beings treat each other abysmally. Similarly, I look up during dinner, our best meal. A Jamaican red bean stew, ironically. I see the other diners. All of us are destined for the briefest of mortal stays. Will anyone die in the baths? How many will be back next year? Their lives are easier, of that I am mostly convinced. Perhaps lonelier too. I have Jane, after all. I am not rolling and limping along the road of life without loving companionship. I return to my red beans. It has been a long road, no question. And here I am. And here is Jane. And with one night remaining here, there is every chance of of us being here together tomorrow.